Five Misunderstandings About Cultural Evolution

Abstract

Recent debates about memetics have revealed some widespread misunderstandings about Darwinian approaches to cultural evolution. Drawing from these debates, this paper disputes five common claims: (1) mental representations are rarely discrete, and therefore models that assume discrete, gene-like particles (i.e., replicators) are useless; (2) replicators are necessary for cumulative, adaptive evolution; (3) content-dependent psychological biases are the only important processes that affect the spread of cultural representations; (4) the “cultural fitness” of a mental representation can be inferred from its successful transmission; and (5) selective forces only matter if the sources of variation are random. We close by sketching the outlines of a unified evolutionary science of culture.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In recent years our views and those of Sperber, Atran, and Boyer have largely converged. However, perhaps owing to their important contributions on numerous fronts, a legacy of published claims about the problems with formal models and the nature of cultural traits continues to sow confusion among many, especially those not well equipped to digest mathematical models.

  2. 2.

    Broadly, “content bias” refers to any situation in which a meme’s representational content influences its likelihood of transmission. Such biases arise from the interaction of the representational content of the meme and human psychologies. While this includes reliably developing aspects of human psychology (e.g., incest aversion favoring favor ubiquitous oedipal narratives; Johnson and Price-Williams 1996), it also includes the “fit” between different memes, or different experiences and certain memes (cultural psychologies).

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Acknowledgments

We thank Natalie Henrich for her comments as well as the three insightful anonymous reviewers. Boyd and Henrich thank the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, where much of this paper was written. Boyd’s contribution was partially funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and Henrich’s contribution was partially funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Joseph Henrich.

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Henrich, J., Boyd, R. & Richerson, P.J. Five Misunderstandings About Cultural Evolution. Hum Nat 19, 119–137 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-008-9037-1

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Keywords

  • Dual inheritance theory
  • Memes
  • Cultural evolution
  • Epidemiology of representations
  • Cultural transmission
  • Replicators